Abel Ferrara is a controversial cult director who is probably best known for his most notorious movie, Bad Lieutenant
. That’s the one that’s supposed to be super-violent and is widely-feared for prominently featuring full-frontal Harvey Keitel. I’ve never felt the need to voluntarily submit myself to that image, but I have seen Ferrara’s nearly-as-infamous film, King Of New York
. And I liked that one, but not nearly as much as the Notorious B.I.G.
did. (Biggie called himself “the black Frank White,” after Christopher Walken’s character.) Ferrara also directed the pilot to Michael Mann’s excellent 1980s TV series, Crime Story
Knowing all that, though, I still didn’t know what to expect of The Funeral.
Turns out it’s a New York crime story, set in the 1930s, and centers around three first-generation Italian brothers. The brothers are played by Christopher Walken, Chris Penn, and Vincent Gallo. Their father appears briefly in flashbacks, but I have to assume that there were three very different mothers with the incongruous mugs on that trio.
The three are all members of a local crime family, but Walken is contemplative and a family man, whereas Penn also runs a bar, and Gallo sneaks out to radical union meetings. At the outset of the film, Gallo is in a coffin, and his two older brothers don’t yet know the identity of his killer. (Don’t read Wikipedia’s entry on this movie, by the way; they have it wrong.)
The Funeral is an increasingly interesting movie as it progresses, because while it starts as a loosely-structured collection of scenes — many of which not dissimilar to familiar mob movie clichés — it delves deep into the Walken and Penn characters and comes up with very much worthwhile results. Chris Penn, in particular, makes the movie absolutely necessary to watch, as he takes the traditional Sonny Corleone hothead character and turns it into a heartbreaking, horrific portrayal of real mental illness. It’s an amazing showcase for a much-missed character actor. And who knew the guy had such an incredible singing voice?
In fact, the acting bench is stacked way deep with great character actors. Annabella Sciorra, who also produced along with Russell Simmons (!), plays Walken’s wife. Isabella Rossellini plays Penn’s. Gretchen Mol is Gallo’s widow. Benicio Del Toro has a substantial early role as a rival gangster who may or may not have been behind the trigger. John Ventimiglia, the never-fortunate Artie Bucco from The Sopranos, plays Walken’s consigliere. Victor Argo, a great New York actor who Scorsese fans will immediately recognize, has a brief role as a spooky enforcer. Frank John Hughes (Wild Bill from Band Of Brothers) has a similar role. David Patrick Kelly (you know him from The Warriors) has one great scene as a union speaker. Edie Falco (Carmella!) has a cameo in there. So does Joey G (Vito!).
So yeah, if you’re a character-actor aficionado like I am, The Funeral is like a piñata full of goodness. David Chase obviously saw it.
I ended up digging on The Funeral, but I’m not sure if I’m a newly-converted Ferrara fan, exactly. Then again, Ferrara’s upcoming project, Jekyll and Hyde, was announced not too long ago, and it’s supposedly a re-envisioning of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Forest Whitaker as Jekyll and 50 Cent as Hyde. I will absolutely watch that movie.
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